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International conference tackles social policy responses to promote the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals amidst the global Covid-19 pandemic


The 17th East Asian Social Policy Network Annual Conference



The 17th EASP (East Asian Social Policy Network) Annual Conference was held together with the 27th FISS (Foundation for International Studies on Social Security) at Lingnan University from 2nd-4rd July 2021. The East Asian Social Policy Research Network is the largest regional association for facilitating research exchange among social policy analysts and providing a forum and network of communication for the development of social policy in East Asia. The Foundation for International Studies on Social Security is an independent, non-profit association originally founded in Sigtuna, Sweden that aims to promote international, multidisciplinary research on social security. After being cancelled in 2020 due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, the organisers arranged the joint conference on the Lingnan University campus in a hybrid format, allowing delegates to join the discussion in person or remotely online. One hundred thirty-five representatives from 19 countries/territories attended the three-day meeting with the theme: Mitigating the economic and social impact of COVID-19 - Social security And Social Welfare Responses in East and West.



Few have managed to avoid the direct impacts of economic lockdowns, travel restrictions, school closures, and other public health measures on their everyday lives amidst the global Covid-19 pandemic. Globally, the Covid-19 outbreak has contributed to significant increases in unemployment, loss of working hours, and loss of income of working families. Indeed, the world has seen a dramatic increase in the global poverty rate and the number of countries that are facing growing levels of acute food insecurity since the first Covid-19 case was recorded in December 2019. Besides, school closures resulted in a significant loss of instruction time for students at all levels of education and families were forced to find new ways to combine teleworking and caring responsibilities for children and relatives. The UNDP has estimated that Covid-19 may contribute to the first global decrease in global human development since measurements began in the 1990s. The changing roadmap for human development due to Covid-19 has also put pressure on the world’s ability to reach the United Nation’s ambitious Sustainable Development Goals by the year 2030.   


During the prevailing COVID-19 crisis, social policy has provided protection to individuals and families whose livelihoods have been threatened by unemployment and loss of economic activity. It also ensured systemic security by stabilising purchasing power and helping businesses to bridge the crisis. The international conference invited delegates to share emerging empirical evidence on the critical social policy responses to the social and economic crises caused by Covid-19. In addition, the conference reflected on whether governments in East and West can draw definitive policy lessons on how to promote continuing social progress amidst the global Covid-19 pandemic, and what the latest research has learned about the role of social policy in guiding societies through concomitant societal transformations, such as rapid ageing, declining mental health, climate transitions, and digitisation.



The conference started with opening remarks by the Vice President of Lingnan University, Prof. Ka Ho Mok, the President of FISS, Prof. Peter Saunders, the outgoing EASP Chair, Prof. Shih-Jiunn Shi, and the Head of the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at Lingnan University, Prof. Chen Hon-Fai. All speakers expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to join such an international forum under challenging times and specifically welcomed the EASP and FISS leadership initiative and the support from Lingnan University for engaging in such a joint event for the very first time. The opening ceremony was directly followed by the first conference plenary, which was organised in the format of an expert panel. Prof. Bea Cantillon, Director of the Herman Deleeck Centre for Social Policy at the University of Antwerp, moderated the expert panel, entitled Hong Kong Social Policy at a Crossroads, and invited the four invited experts to provide their brief thoughts on this theme. 


First, Prof. Yip Paul Siu Fai (University of Hong Kong) focussed on the impact of Covid-19 on population and health in Hong Kong. In doing so, Prof. Yip shared the latest statistical evidence on the most significant demographic changes in Hong Kong, including a rapidly ageing population, a shrinking labour force, accelerating outward migration, and persistent low fertility rates. He concluded that these multiple challenges require new thinking in social policy geared towards empowering communities and neighbourhoods to create a more protective environment for each of their members. 



The second speaker, Prof. Ka Ho Mok (Lingnan University, Hong Kong), started his address by sharing more statistics on rapid ageing in Hong Kong. While pointing out that there has been growing government investment into social welfare, particularly financial support for Hong Kong older adults, he suggested that the issue of productive ageing has not received enough recognition in the international analysis of social policy. Prof. Mok shared the results of a recent community survey that showed that respondents perceived social inclusion, sufficient outdoor spaces, and community support and health services as critical elements of building an age-friendly city in Hong Kong. 


The third speaker, Prof. Chen Juan (Hong Kong Polytechnic University), started her talk by reminding delegates of the more difficult school-to-work transitions of the post-handover generation in Hong Kong and the considerable care burden many Hong Kong families experience. Prof. Chen argued that Hong Kong experienced diminishing mental health amidst the global Covid-19 pandemic and concluded that future social policy should contribute to the provision of decent employment and healthy living to counter this worrying trend. Furthermore, more government investment into children and young people would promise to help them achieve their full potential and contribute fully to society. 


Finally, the fourth speaker, Prof. Wong Hung (Chinese University of Hong Kong), summarised the most significant developments of social security policy in Hong Kong since the 1970s and presented statistical evidence on the increases in unemployment and underemployment following the Covid-19 pandemic in Hong Kong. In light of the shrinking labour force and the difficulties of retaining skills in the current labour market, critical debates in social security, according to Prof. Wong, will include a renewed discussion in Hong Kong about more universal structures for retirement and income protection programmes and their fiscal sustainability.



In the second plenary, entitled Inequality in East & West from Multiple Angles, Prof. Janet Gornick (City University New York, United States) presented a cross-national portrait of socioeconomic outcomes, spanning income (inequality and poverty), wealth (inequality), and employment (gender disparities in labour force participation and earnings). Her presentation drew heavily on microdata available from LIS, the cross-national data centre located in Luxembourg. She presented results for several OECD countries and five East Asian countries/territories available via LIS’ income and wealth databases: China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam. By organising the results into five clusters of countries/territories, Prof. Gornick was able to highlight the astonishing variety of outcomes within the different families of nations, but particularly within the East Asia cluster. For instance, the disposable household income Gini index for 2013-2016 was significantly lower in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea than in Vietnam and China. Still, the relative poverty rate in South Korea was higher than in Taiwan and Japan. Similarly, the data suggests that although disposable household income inequality was very similar in Taiwan and Japan, the latter’s market income was significantly higher. Moreover, South Korea and Japan had comparatively low female labour force participation. The mean monthly earnings compared unfavourably to the Nordic, Conservative, and Liberal country clusters, whereas South Korea showed an exceptionally high low pay rate among women too. The plenary by Prof. Gornick was opened to international academic community and 50 additional registrations were received from around the world.



In the third plenary, Prof. Bingqin Li (University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia), entitled Healthy Aging and Community Based Old Age Care Services in China, provided a detailed discussion of the concepts of healthy ageing and community-based old-age care. The main issues identified by Prof. Li were low affordability of care, lower family care capacity, and variations in older people’s needs in the context of ageing in China. At the same time, Prof. Li stressed a significant change of the central government mindset had resulted in a greater public emphasis on collectivism, a shift in the ideas about the role of the state, and the willingness to engage in policy learning, all of which resulted in a noticeable growth in the physical old-age care infrastructure. 


In the fourth and final plenary of the conference, Poverty in Rich Societies, Prof. David Gordon (Bristol University, United Kingdom) presented a systematic global overview of Covid-19 and its negative impact on poverty and the sustainable development goals. In particular, Prof. Gordon showed that the number of people in extreme poverty is estimated to increase significantly due to Covid-19. However, the response of governments to the Covid-19 crisis has been mixed internationally, with governments across the Asia-Pacific investing less on average on additional social expenditure than those in Western countries in Europe and Northern America. Besides, Prof. Gordon stressed that Covid-19 had a particularly negative impact on children and their families and people living in impoverished areas. After sharing the latest evidence on the poverty situation in Hong Kong, Prof. Gordon concluded his plenary by reflecting on accompanying challenges due to climate change and its impact on rising inequality and poverty trends. He warned that most governments around the world have so far primarily announced short-term policies to offer temporary emergency relief I response to these challenges. Still, longer-term policies to deal with structural risk factors of infections and mortality and addressing new social divides have been found wanting. 



Besides the plenary sessions, the conference was structured around 30 parallel panel and stream sessions focusing on the social policy responses to the Covid-19 crisis, poverty measurement in East Asia, education and youth transitions, health and human well-being, gender inequality, work-family reconciliation, and housing and urbanisation. Other parallel sessions discussed conceptual advancements in research on the Asian welfare geography and debates on basic income, post-developmentalism in China, and the promise and limitations of social investment in Europe and East Asia. The conference directly addressed the sustainable development goals, but particularly East Asian governments’ approaches to promote the goals of ‘no poverty’ (SDG1), ‘good health and well-being’ (SDG3), ‘quality education’ (SDG4), ‘gender equality’ (SDG5), ‘decent work abd economic growth’ (SDG8), and ‘educed inequalities’ (SDG10) amidst the global Covid-19 pandemic. Like in previous years, the conference included presentations from a sizeable number of early career researchers (PhD candidates and postdoctoral fellows). In addition, the conference organisers used an innovative software application to facilitate interactions between presenters and non-presenters in a virtual conference lounge during tea and dinner breaks.   



In the closing ceremony, Prof. Peter Saunders (FISS President) and Prof. Shih-Jiunn Shih (EASP Chair) jointly thanked all keynote speakers and attendees in their short closing remarks. Special thanks were expressed to the conference organising team, especially the student volunteers, for their work before and during the successful annual meeting. Next, Prof. Stefan Kühner (Lingnan University, Hong Kong) introduced Chikako Endo (Osaka University, Japan) as the new EASP Secretary, before the incoming EASP Chair, Prof. Young Jun Choi (Yonsei University, South Korea), announced that the annual EASP conference in 2022 would be held in Seoul, South Korea. Finally, all parties agreed that EASP and FISS should explore how the two learned societies can build on their successful collaboration leading up to and during the conference.